Divina Traceby Robert Antoni
The acclaimed novel of Caribbean magic and language.
A mysterious child, half human, half-frog, is born on the island of Corpus Christi in the West Indies. Its mother becomes Magdalena Divina, patron saint of the island, worshipped by Hindu and Muslim Cast Indians, Africans, Catholics and indigenous Indians alike. The frogchild, allegedly drowned in a pot of
The acclaimed novel of Caribbean magic and language.
A mysterious child, half human, half-frog, is born on the island of Corpus Christi in the West Indies. Its mother becomes Magdalena Divina, patron saint of the island, worshipped by Hindu and Muslim Cast Indians, Africans, Catholics and indigenous Indians alike. The frogchild, allegedly drowned in a pot of callaloo by the wife of the man who sired it, becomes the focus of an evolving legend as Johnny Domingo hears this story, about his family from different people and tries, impossibly, to piece it together into one coherent and true account.
- The Overlook Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
For María Rosario de Medina Antoni 1891-1986
FROGCHILD ON THE DAY OF CORPUS CHRISTI
Granny Myna Tells of the Child
THE BOTTLE was big and obzockee. I was having a hard time toting it. It was the day before my thirteenth birthday, seventy-seven years ago: tomorrow I will be ninety years of age. I am still a practising physician, and as I sit here in this library, at this desk of my father’s, of my father’s father – lugged as a trunk of purpleheart wood by six Warrahoon Indians out of the misty jungles of Venezuela, floated down the Orinoco and towed across the Caribbean behind three rowing pirogues, my grandfather calling the cadence stroke by stroke in a language nearly forgotten – I can still hear him, sitting behind this desk, looking out of this window at this moon above the same black, glistening sea. I can still hear him. I know my grandfather’s voice, even though he died ages before I was born. Even though I could not remember who told the story or when I’d heard it, nor did I know what those words meant or whether they were words at all, as I carried the huge glassbottle my steps suddenly fell into the rhythm of his voice: Na-me-na-na-ha! Na-me-na-na-ha! Na-me-na-na-ha!
I was bareback, wearing only my baggy school short-pants and my old jesusboots, so skinny my navel stuck out in a tight knot. I held the bottle against my chest. My arms were wrapped around it, my fingers cupped into the hollow of the bottom, the top butting up my chin with every step. I couldn’t look down, so I didn’t have to see what I knew was inside. It was a very old bottle, the kind used to preserve fruit, made of thick glass with wire clamps to hold down its glass lid. I was sweating. My stomach kept sticking to the bottle. My bung navel rubbed against the glass, sometimes pinching and sending a shock down my legs to my toes. I sucked in my belly as I walked.
The sun was already rising behind me, rising with the dust stirred up by my hurrying feet. I was thinking: Maraval must be ten mile from Domingo Cemetery at least. How you could foot it there and back in time? Thinking: Ten mile from Domingo Cemetery to Maraval Swamp fa the least. Daddy ga box you ears fa true if you don’t get back in time. This bottle heavy like a boulderstone. And these arms only crying to drop off. But how you could stop to put it down?
There were no people yet on the trace, only some potcakes curled up among the weeds pushing out in the middle, and a few old billies on their way to pasture, lengths of twisted rotten cord dragging behind them. They were as tall as I was, and they came at me snuffling, pressing their bearded faces into mine, staring at me through silver eyes from another world. I kicked them away, thinking: How she could be dead if she eyes aren’t closed? But if she isn’t dead, and you are home in you bed dreaming all this, then how you could be tired toting this bottle? Thinking: You know they ga start with the funeral first thing as she was so hurry hurry. So you best just keep on walking, and don’t even bother templating bout stopping to put it down to waste no time, and anyway you don’t want to have to look at he face neither.
There were small villages along Divina Trace, the footpath which began behind the convent, weaving its way through tenements in the outskirts of St Maggy, and passing behind the graveyard. Then it stretched out through cocoa and coconut estates in the country, cane-fields, finally ending with the Church of Magdalena Divina at the edge of Maraval Swamp. Now, outside of town, the trace curved through bush – with the shanties and roukou-scrubbed mudhuts half-hidden behind giant tufts of bamboo, schools of yardfowl scurrying in dust-waves as I approached, the odours of cooking coalpots, stench of rubbish – unless the trace traversed one of the estates. Then it ran straight, mossy grey cocoa trees on either side, with nutmeg or brilliant orange immortelle in between to shade them from the sun. Otherwise the trace passed among thick groves of coconut palms, their fronds rustling in the breeze high above, or it would be closed in by purple walls of cane, the air sweet-smelling, charred if the field had been scorched to scare out the scorpions for harvest. There were hills from which the mountains could be seen at one horizon, hot black sea at the other.
I’d been to Maraval Swamp many times before, but I didn’t want to believe it was ten miles away. I kept thinking: Maybe it’s not so far as that? You know it is ten mile at least. How many times you been to the church with Mother Maurina and the whole of St Maggy Provisional to see the walking statue and hear bout the Black Virgin? How many times you been to the swamp with Papee Vince and the whole of form three science to collect specimens fa dissections? With daddy and all five troups of seascouts to catch jumping frogs fa the summer jamboree? Thinking: You know it is ten mile fa the least. How many times you been with you jacks to catch guanas to pope them off on the Indians by Suparee fa fifty cent fa each? Running and grabbing them up quick by they tails and swinging them round and round until they heads kaponkle, and they drop boodoops sweet in the crocasssack! And the time you get a dollar fa that big big one, and you eat so many julie-mangoes fa that dollar you belly wanted to bust froopoops! How them coolies and Warrahoons could eat them things? But Granny Myna say Barto used to eat guana all the time in Venezuela when they was first married, and they had the cattle ranch in Estado Monagas where daddy was born. And the time Barto try to bring one inside and she chase him out with he own cutlass, because one thing Granny Myna wouldn’t stand in the house is no kind of creature curse to walk on he belly, and it is from eating that nastiness that kill Barto young so. But daddy say a Warrahoon bring him a stew guana to the hospital once, and he couldn’t tell the difference from fricassee chicken.
I didn’t want to think about the contents of the bottle, about the ten miles ahead, and I didn’t want to think about getting back too late for the funeral. I’d been up the whole night, and I was already tired carrying the bottle. I’d only just left the cemetery. I hadn’t been able to fall asleep that night, turning in my bed thinking about old Granny Myna. She’d told me a story once about a frog she’d seen suck out the eye of a woman in Wallafield, and I could not dissolve from my mind the image of this woman struggling with the huge, white frog. It was one of those flying frogs, and the woman had been sitting good as ever beneath a tamarind tree. As soon as she looked up the frog flew out and stuck frapps to her face. Granny Myna told me it took two big men to pull off this frog, and when he came off the eye came out too. She said that if Barto had not been there to pick up the eye from out the mud, to spit on it and rub off the mud and push it back in, the woman would have walked away from that frog without an eye.
It was not unusual for me to awaken in the middle of the night and begin thinking of Granny Myna and one of her stories, but I remember this time I could not put her and the frog out of my mind. My grandmother was ninety-six, always talking about dying, yet Granny Myna had never known a sick day in her life, and I was convinced she’d live forever. I couldn’t fall asleep, so I woke up my younger brother to ask him about the woman from Wallafield. He cussed me and rolled over again. I remember I lay there listening to the oscillating fan, its noise growing louder with each pass, until it seemed to be screaming in my ears. I threw off the sheet and jumped out of bed. I pulled on my shorts, buckled on my jesusboots, and walked quietly down the hall. Papee Vince, my grandfather on my mother’s side, had his room at the end. I hurried past and on down the stairs. Granny Myna’s door was open, so I stuck my head in. She was sitting up in her bed waiting. I went and sat beside her. She looked at me for a long time, reached across me to put her gold rosary down on the bedstand, and she began to talk.
HE WAS BORN a man, but above he cojones he was a frog. It happen so, because Magdalena Domingo was a whore, and a black bitch, and on top of that she was a bad woman. Magdalena make this practice of going every Sunday to Maraval Swamp, because I used to follow her and sometimes she would meet there with Barto beneath the samaan tree, she go to Maraval Swamp because she like to watch the crapos singando. Magdalena just love to see the frogs fucking, and is that she must have been looking the moment she conceive the child, because Barto used the same principle to create a zebra from two donkeys by putting them to do they business in a room he have paint with stripes. So too again everybody take you daddy for another St John, because above my bed I have the picture hanging with him still smiling happy on the dishplate that I used to look up at it in all my moments of passion, and that is why you daddy have that same crease right here in the middle of he forehead, and how else could it be you daddy is the only Domingo with those eyes always watching you just like St John? You see how Papa God does do He work? In the same way Magdalena make that child with the face of a frog to mimic she own, and with the cojones of every man on this island of Corpus Christi!
When Dr Brito Salizar see this child coming out, he only want to push it back inside Magdalena pussy and hide it from the rest of the world. Dr Brito know nothing good could come from this child that is the living sin of all the earth. Because it take Magdalena only one look in the face of this frogchild to kill sheself dead: she press the pillow and hold up she breath until she suffocate. By the time Dr Brito have realize and cut the pillow from out she lock up jaws she was already dead. Feathers was gusting back and forth in that little hospital room like a blizzard. Dr Brito blow into the air before him to clear way the floating feathers, he cross heself, and Dr Brito open he mouth wide to bend over to bite off the cordstring from the belly of this crapochild to join the world of the living with the world of the dead for the whole of eternity!
That night there was such a great rain that the Caronee have overflow sheself, and the next morning there was cocodrilles in the streets and the basements of all the houses. So when Barto arrive now dress in mud up to he cojones, and holding this shoebox in he hands, I grab on to he moustache and I put one cursing on him to say he is never coming inside the house with that crapochild! But Barto is a man that nobody couldn’t tell him nothing once he have make up he head, and he don’t pay no attention a-tall never mind my bawling to break down the roof. I tell him Papa God will kill him and all of us too if he try to bring that crapochild inside, but Barto can’t even hear, because he walk straight through the front door and he put this shoebox down in the middle of the diningroom table. And if I would have give Barto only half a chance, he would have lay this frogchild right down next to Amadao who is sleeping in my bedroom in the crib, born no even six months before.
Well Evelina, she is the servant living with me even in those days, just a little negrita running round the estate when she mummy dead and I take her up, Evelina only have to hear about this crapochild coming inside the house, and she start to beat she breast and shout one set of Creole-obeah bubball on the child, and she run quick to she room to bury sheself beneath the bed. Reggie and Paco, they is the last of the nine boys before Amadao sleeping in the cradle, Reggie and Paco come running to Barto to question him where do he find this chuffchuff frog, and could they please take him in the yard to find out how good can he jump. But Barto only have to make one cuteye on these boys for them to know he is no skylarking, and little Reggie and Paco take off running and we don’t see them again until late in the night. As for me now, after a time I have quiet down little bit and Barto turn to me, because of course at this time I am still nursing Amadao, and he want to know now if I am ready to feed he Manuelito, which is the name Barto pronounce on the child official with salt and water. Sweet heart of Jesus! I look Barto straight in he eyes, and I tell him if he only bring that crapochild anywhere near by me, I will squeeze he cojones so hard they will give off milk like two balls of cheese, and he could feed that to he pendejo frogchild!
But nothing couldn’t stop Barto. Like he want to take on Papa God self. Because next thing I see he have pick up he revolver again to protect against the cocodrilles, and he go outside to the shed for the big cow that we have there by the name of Rosey. And this Rosey have been with us so many years that she have come tame tame, that the boys used to ride her all about the place like a horse, and we have to be very careful no to leave a plantain or anything so on the table, because soon as you turn round she would push she head in through the window and carry it way. So here is me now only standing up like a mokojumbie watching at Barto leading this cow through the mud that is high as Rosey belly, and Barto carry her straight through the entrance hall into the diningroom up on top the table. Oui Papayo! Well now I know I am soon to go viekeevie!
Barto leave Rosey there just so, and he gone to the sea for a bucket of water to wipe off the mud from Rosey pechugas. But when Barto pick up this frogchild out the shoebox, and I have a good look at this frogchild face for the first time, I take off with one set of bawling again because you never see no creature on the skin of Papa God earth so ugly as that! Even Rosey have to jump when she see this crapochild, and Barto have to hold her down to keep her from bolting out the door. But nothing couldn’t stop Barto once he have make up he head, because next thing I see he is untying the cowboy kerchief from round he neck, and he fix it to hide poor Rosey eyes. In no time a-tall she have calm down again, and Barto is holding this crapochild below her with the tottot in the big frogmouth, and he is sucking down milk that is spilling all over the ugly frogface, and he is talking one set of froglanguage like oy-juga oy-juga oy-juga!
That night I am in my bed trying my best to sleep with all this confusion going on in the house, and Barto come inside the room, because Barto used to keep he own bedroom upstairs, in the one you mummy and daddy use now, he come inside the room just here at the end of this bed pointing he revolver at me with he eyes only spitting fire, demanding to know what have I do with he Manuelito. Sweet heart of Jesus! I answer him that this frogchild have make he brain viekeevie now for true, because is no me a-tall to touch that crapochild no even until the ends of the earth, and if he have disappear I don’t know nothing as the last I see him he is still sleeping happy in he shoebox cradle in the middle of the diningroom table. But Barto have reach into a state now over this crapochild, so I decide to go and wake up Evelina and the two of us begin to ransack the house, looking in all the drawers and beneath the beds and all about for this child, that we can’t find him nowhere a-tall and we don’t know what we will do. Just then I hear Evelina scream someplace outside, and I take off running to find her there by the pond for all the ducks to come and bathe theyself, there standing up with she eyes open wide wide like she have just see a jabjab, only watching at Reggie and Paco and this frogchild swimming!
Next morning the whole of St Maggy have reach at my doorstep to see this crapochild. The Caranee have no even begin to go down yet, and the mud in the streets is still high as you knees, but nothing couldn’t slow down these people. In all the windows they is jam up standing one on top the next waiting half the day for only a glimpse of this frogchild, and the little baboo boy see the crowd to come running pushing he bicyclecar through the mud with all the bottles of sweetsyrup spilling out, and he begin to shave ice like he catch a vaps, selling one set of snowball to all these people only looking through the glass licking licking with all they tongues green and purple and yellow like this is one big pappyshow going on now with this cow and this crapochild inside the house! Everybody is laughing and bawling and blowing out they cheeks making one set of frogfaces to imitate this child, and soon I begin to hear somebody mamaguying me about how I is the mother of this crapochild, when they know good enough the child belong to Barto and that black jamet Magdalena and I don’t have nothing to do with him a-tall, and how they use to see me with Barto all the time by Maraval watching the frogs fucking. Sweet heart of Jesus! I run quick to that shoebox cradle and I grab up this crapochild, and I go to Barto on my knees to beg him please for the mercy of Papa God please to carry him way!
Barto look down on me a moment, and I see that I have finally touch him. Because he reach down and he take way this crapochild that is wrap up now in a white coverlet that you can no even see the half belonging to a man. Barto carry the child to the big closet of glass that we have there in the parlour to keep all the guns. He take out the biggest one, this is the rifle all bathe in silver and mother-of-pearl that we have there since the days of General Monagas, and Barto carry the child and the gun both up to the garret. He climb out on top the roof and he walk straight to the very edge. Barto did no even open he mouth to speak a word. He stand up there just so in he leather clothes that I have rub all over with sweetoil until they are glowing, and he is holding this frogchild with he legs spread wide and the spurs on he cowboy boots and he eyes only flaming, and he reach out slow with he arm straight and General Monagas big rifle pointing up at heaven to fire so boodoom! and all these people take off running swimming in the mud like each one get jook with a big jooker up they backside!
PEOPLE HAD BEGUN to appear on the road, most walking in the direction of town. They were dressed in their best clothes for church, or they were already costumed as some saint or Bible character, some figure from the Hindu holy books. That day was a big one for Corpus Christi: it was the religious feastday after which the island had been named. Most of us went to Mass in the morning. In the afternoon there were parades through the streets of St Maggy, the fêtes continuing until midnight. Because at the stroke of twelve all the music stopped, and we returned to church to begin the Easter Vigil. There were never any motorcars on the trace other than the occasional truck or jitney belonging to one of the estates. Bicycles and donkeycarts went by, some already decorated with crêpe paper and papier-mâché.
Everyone who passed looked at me toting the huge bottle. I was sweating, covered in dust, thinking: Supposing somebody see this frogbaby now and push out a scream? Supposing somebody question you where you get him from? What you ga say? You dig him up in Domingo Cemetery? You catch him in Maraval Swamp? Then I began to think: But nobody seeing this frogbaby a-tall! You sure you have anything in this glassbottle? Maybe it’s only fill with seawater? Maybe this frogbaby is only some monster you dream up? Some jujubee Granny Myna push inside you head?
Just then a boy about my own age – costumed as Moses in a white turban, and dragging a big tablet of pasteboard commandments behind him – grabbed his father’s sleeve and pointed at me: ‘See that, Daddy? Look the frog that boy hold up inside he glassbottle. He big as a monkey! He live you know, Daddy. He swimming!’
MAGDALENA JUST LOVE to go to Maraval to see the crapos singando, because she used to walk all the way from St Maggy Convent every Sunday parading through the streets dress up in she white clothes of a nun before the face of Papa God, when beneath she is nothing but a black whore. And it is those frogs fucking Magdalena must have been looking to make the impression of that frogface the moment she conceive the child, because a crapo is the only creature on the skin of Papa God earth that can hold on and singando passionate for three days and three nights without even a pause for a breath of air, and how else could he come out a man perfect so with the big business hanging and the rest a frog? Of course Dr Brito realize straight way this child is a crapo above the cojones, and he say that he have hear of more frogchildren even though he never have the privilege before to see one heself, but I know that is impossible because this world could never be big enough for two. The other schoolboy-doctor in the hospital then, he is the first to come from England with a big degree stamp by the Queen that was Elizabeth the segundo one, but how can anybody with sense listen to a doctor who learn everything from a book without even seeing a sick person? this little schoolboy-doctor say the child isn’t no frog a-tall, but he have a kind of a thing in the blood or the genes or something so. He bring out the big black book that is so big he can hardly tote it, and he point to the picture of this thing now that is name after the first two girlchildren to be born with this disease, and he mark it down on a piece of paper for me to believe it: ANNA-AND-CECILY. The little schoolboy-doctor say this thing means to be born without a brain, and that is what cause the child to look like a frog. But it is you Uncle Olly, he is the scientist of bones and rocks and a very brilliant oldman, Uncle Olly prove without any questions that the child is a frog, and he do have a brain, even though it is no bigger than the size of a prune.
The frogchild didn’t have no skull a-tall, but only the soft soft covering on the head like the skin of a zabuca. So all Uncle Olly have to do is cut a little cut with the scissors, and squeeze on the both sides, and the little brain pop out like a chenet out the shell. Of course the first thing Uncle Olly do is run quick to Maraval for a big crapo grande, and he take out the brain of this frogbull to compare it with that of the child. Well the two was so much the same in size and shape and weight and everything so, that soon as Uncle Olly go outside for a quick weewee and come back, he forget who belong to who.
I only wish to Papa God Uncle Olly could have satisfy heself with that brain! But when it come to he science nothing couldn’t satisfy you Uncle Olly. By the time he have finish with that brain he was all excited, and he decide now he want to preserve this crapochild for more dissections. It is Uncle Olly then who put the child in the bottle of seawater, but the same night Barto discover him floating downstairs on the shelf in Olly laboratory, and that, is the beginning of the end.
A MAN in an oxcart going in my direction stopped beside me: ‘Eh-eh whiteboy, tell me what you say!’
I stood staring up at this oldman who’d wrapped himself and his entire oxcart in aluminium foil. He nodded his nose at the bottle: ‘Where you going toting dat glassbottle fa health? Dat ting big as you own self! Why you don’t climb up here rest you load, let me carry you little bit down de road?’
‘Who you is?’ I asked. ‘Robot?’
The oldman chupsed: he sucked his teeth in exasperation. ‘I is de archangel St Michael, dis my chariot going to battle. And you best get you little backside up here fa sin, you ga dead up youself toting dat big glasstin.’ He chupsed again. ‘Robot!’
I gave the bottle a heave onto the shelf where the oldman rested his feet. He leaned over and studied it for several long seconds. He sat up again, his costume crinkling, and we looked at each other.
‘Come boy!’ he said, and I climbed up onto the bench next to him, the bottle between us. The oldman nudged his nose over his shoulder: ‘Plenty more tinpaper back dere fa you, you know. Why you don’t costume youself proper, we to play mas fa so!’
‘You don’t think one robot is enough, oldman?’
He chupsed, and he gave the worn rope he had for reins a tug. We left slowly, pitching from side to side as we went, the solution sloshing in the bottle at our feet. The oxen was a huge coolie-buffalo, with widespread s-shaped horns and a sticky mist rising from its bluegray hump. After awhile the oldman looked at me again, his face beaded with perspiration. His white stubble of beard, grey eyes and lashes looked silver against his umber-burntblack skin: it all seemed to match his aluminium outfit.
‘Where you going toting dis bottle on Corpus Christi Day?’ he asked. ‘Corpus Christi is the day fa play is play!’
I was looking up at his cone-shaped hat, the cuffed brim riding on the bridge of his nose, like the oversized cap of a yankee-sailor.
‘What wrong with you, boy? You don’t talk?’
You not hot inside all that costume?’
He chupsed. ‘Where you going with dis glassbottle, boy?’
‘You ever see a frogbaby before, oldman?’
He sucked his teeth again. ‘Ninety-some years I been walking dis earth, me mummy tell me. Still plenty tings I never see.’
A breeze came up and the oldman held on to his hat. I shielded my eyes against the dust raised from the road.
‘Oldman, you think somebody could die with their eyes open?’
He turned to look at me: ‘Everybody born with dey eyes close down, and everybody die with dey eyes open up round. Papa God mistake is He do de whole business back-to-front. And dat boy, is de beginning of all dis confusion and quarrelment. Now tell where you going toting dis glassbottle.’
‘Quite so to Maraval footing? Good ting I stop, boy. You would have dead up youself polapeezoy, time you arrive by de swamp with dis big glasstin.’
He reached behind and handed me the roll of aluminum foil. ‘Corpus Christi not de day to tote no heavy load. Dress up youself proper let we play! We ga meet up de band down de road, do one set of monekeybusiness before we pray!’
I told him I had to go to Maraval Swamp.
He chupsed. ‘Suit youself den, whiteson. Time as we bounce up with de flock of Seraphim, you would have almost reach you destination.’
I put the roll of foil down as we continued, the ox walking at its slow, steady pace, the cart pitching on its unsteady wheels.
I NEVER HOLD nothing against Magdalena. Papa God is she judge, and if she is a whore she must answer to Him. Who am I to say she is wrong to be Barto mistress, and how can I hold that crapochild against her, or Barto, or anybody else when he is a creature of Papa God, touch by He own hand, make of He own flesh, breathing of He own air? And so I pick him up. Even though he is the most hateful thing to me in all the world, he is still the son of my husband, and I must go to this child. I am there with Evelina in the kitchen in the middle of preparing dinner when I feel something touch my heart. I don’t even finish putting the remainder of the dasheen leaves in the pot of boiling water to make the callaloo, but I leave it there just so and I go to this frogchild. I pick him up with so much tears in my eyes I can hardly see, with so much trembling in my hand I can hardly hold it steady enough to push my tottot in he mouth, but I do it. For the love of Papa God I do it! I feed him with the milk of my own breast!
I never hold nothing against Magdalena. I try my best never to listen to what people say, and let me tell you people can say some words to push like a knife in you chest. But I never hold nothing against Magdalena. I am kind to her, and when I meet her in the cathedral with all the other nuns I make a special point to wish her a pleasant todobien, because who am I to say Barto must give he affections to me alone when he have enough love in he heart for all the world? No husband have ever honour he wife more, and offer her more love and devotion than that man give to me. Barto raise me up on a pedestal, you hear? On a pedestal!
But something happen when that child begin to suck at my breast. Something happen, and I don’t know what it is. Like some poison pass from out he mouth to go inside my blood, because next thing I know I am running back to the kitchen for that big basin of boiling water that is waiting for me to finish the callaloo, and I push him in. Evelina scream but I can’t even hear her, because before I can know what my hands are doing they are bury up to they elbows in this boiling water, and how to this day I can no even feel it I couldn’t tell you, because here am I drowning this child in the basin of boiling water with the dasheen leaves swirling swirling like the green flames of hell!
Soon as I can realize myself I pull him from out the water, but by now he is already dead. I can no think what to do. I can only plead with Evelina for the mercy of Papa God please to take him way. I beg her to carry him back to Maraval where he belong, but Evelina refuse to come anywhere near this crapochild no matter if he is living or if he is dead. After a time though she have accept to carry him way from me, and I swear her to go straight to Maraval and pitch him in, and I go outside in the street to look behind Evelina walking with this crapochild hold upside down by he legs like a cockfowl going to sell at Victoria Market. I watch behind Evelina until I can no see her any more, and I go back in the house to try my best to finish seeing about the callaloo. I only wish to Papa God I could have remain in that street! Because I put loud goatmouth on myself saying about that crapofowl, as no sooner have I go back inside the house when Evelina turn round to come all the way back, only to sell this crapochild to Uncle Olly for a scrunting five coconut dollars. Uncle Olly have decide now he want to make some of he science on the child, and that night Barto find him floating on the shelf downstairs in Olly laboratory. Sweet Heart of Jesus! I thought Barto would kill me. I have never see him so upset as when he come to me with this bottle, and he demand me to tell him what happen to the child. When I have finish, and I am kneeling down on the ground pleading with him standing above me with he eyes only flaming, he tell me that I will suffer for this the whole of my life and death, because I can never even look forward to lying in the ground in peace beside my husband, as between us will be this crapochild to remind me on myself and torment me until the ends of eternity. And with that Barto leave toting the bottle into the night.
But I can never suffer any more. After ninety-six years I have no more strength left to go on. My eyes have dry up, and there is no more tears left to pass, and Papa God have forgive me. He have forgive me, and tomorrow I will be with Him in heaven. Papa God have forgive me, and Barto must forgive me now after all these years of crying in the dark, and I am ready. I am ready to lie down my bones in peace, peace that I have earn with sweating blood cold in the hot night, but I will never know peace so long as I have to be bury next to that crapochild. Never! But you will take him way, Johnny. You will go for me tonight to Domingo Cemetery, and you will dig him up, and you will carry him way. Now I am ready to die. Go and call you mummy and daddy.
WE COULD HEAR the Divina Church band beating steeldrums in the distance long before we met them. The sun remained hidden behind the dark clouds, but the oldman continued to sweat in his aluminium outfit. A breeze came up and blew away his hat, so I took up the roll of foil and stood on the bench to make him another, a tall spike shooting up at the top – helmet fit for an archangel. There must have been fifty people in the band, and as many children, all costumed as angels. The oldman steered his oxcart to the side of the road and we watched the parade go by, the angels waving to us as they passed. Most went on foot, but there were bicycles and three or four donkeycarts. The children were running back and forth, screaming, flapping their wings. Each of the angels carried a musical instrument of some sort – steeldrums, horns, quatros – but most of the instruments consisted of nothing more than a pair of toktok sticks, a rumbottle and spoon, or a dried calabash with a handful of poinciana seeds shaking inside. The oldman began to sing, his lips flapping over his nearly toothless gums, spittle flying. He took hold of my hands and shook them up and down with the music, his aluminium arms crackling: ‘Time to jubilate whiteson, open you mouthgate!’
I began to sing too:
When the band had passed I got down from the cart and the oldman handed me the bottle. He turned the oxcart around and waved, his costume flashing molten metal for an instant as it caught the light, shouting something which I could not make out over the music. I watched the oldman disappear into the cloud of dust which followed his band of angels. I looked after him for a long time, until the dust had settled and the steeldrums had been reduced to a rumble in the distance. I looked around and realized I was suddenly alone. There was no one left on the trace. It was quiet. I turned and continued walking, calm now, unhurried.
GRANNY MYNA stared at me in silence. I couldn’t move, couldn’t get up from the bed. She reached and took both my hands in hers: ‘Go Johnny. Tell you mummy and daddy I am ready.’
I ran upstairs and called them, my brother, Evelina and Papee Vince waking with the commotion. We crowded around Granny Myna sitting up in the small bed, her back against the pillow against the headboard: my father in his drawers sitting next to her listening to her heart through his stethoscope, my mother holding my baby sister with one arm, my younger brother holding her other hand, Papee Vince in the chair leaning forward over his big belly, old Evelina mumbling some obeah incantation, and me thinking: This is not you standing here seeing this because you are upstairs in you bed sleeping. Why you don’t go see if you find youself and then you would know it is only you dreaming?
My father pulled the stethoscope from his ears and left it hanging from his neck. He looked around, got up and went to the small table covered with Granny Myna’s religious objects: a statue of St Michael, of St Christopher, a photograph of the Pope, of Barto, a plastic bottle shaped like the Virgin filled with holywater from Lourdes, some artificial roses, multicoloured beads, all decorated on a doily she had crocheted in pink, white and babyblue. My father took up a candle and put it in Granny Myna’s hand, closing her fingers around it. He lit a match, but before he could touch it to the candle Mother Superior Maurina, Granny Myna’s sister, entered the room. We all turned to look at her. No one had called her, and as far as we knew she and Granny Myna had not talked in more than fifty years, since before Mother Maurina had run away to the convent. She had never set foot in our house.
My father lit another match and touched it to the candle. He told us quietly to kneel down. My grandmother studied the flame for a few seconds, took a deep breath, blew it out: ‘Stand up! Pray for me to die if you have to pray!’
My father chupsed. ‘Mummy –’
‘Tomorrow is the sixteen of April, Holy Thursday: Corpus Christi Day. It is the happiest day in heaven, and I am going to be there. I don’t want no funeral confusion. Barto have the stone and everything there ready waiting for me. Just dig the hole and push me in the ground first thing in the morning!’
We didn’t know what to do. My father sucked his teeth. He looked at my mother, got up again and sat next to my grandmother, listening to her heart through his stethoscope. Granny Myna’s hands lay on her lap, her fists clenched. Her lips were pressed firmly together over her gums, her pointed chin protruding, trembling slightly. Her eyes were wide, unblinking – fixed on me. I watched her jaw drop slowly, her lips go purple and open a little, her skin turn to soft wax. I kept thinking: Her eyes aren’t closed so she isn’t dead. Her eyes aren’t closed so she isn’t dead. Her eyes aren’t – My father turned. Before he could look up I was already running.
I ran halfway to Domingo Cemetery before I turned around and went back for the shovel, thinking: If the bottle isn’t there she isn’t dead. Just make up you head not to dream up that bottle too. The graveyard smelled of wet earth, rotting leaves, tinged by the too-sweet smell of eucalyptus. A small coral wall ran all around. The huge trees rustled in the breeze, the undersides of their leaves flashing silver in the moonlight. I went straight to Granny Myna’s intended grave, everything but her deathdate chiselled into the headstone. I dropped the shovel and squinted to see the line of graves. On one side of the plot where my grandmother would be buried was Uncle Olly’s grave, Manuelito’s on the other. Beside Manuelito was Barto’s grave, and beside him, Magdalena María Domingo. I moved closer: MANUELITO DOMINGO, NACI XVI ET MORI XIX APRILIS, ANNO DOMINI NOSTRI, MDCCCXCIX.
I picked up the shovel again, thinking. If it isn’t there she isn’t dead because you refuse to dream up the bottle. You can go back home and laugh at youself sleeping. But I hadn’t sent the shovel into the ground three times when I hit something solid. I threw the shovel aside and got down on my knees to dig with both hands. After a moment I realized I’d found the bottle.
I tried to pull it out but my hands slipped: I fell backwards as though I’d been shoved, my head thudding against Manuelito’s headstone, and someone threw a clump of wet earth in my face – like I’d been slapped. I spit out the dirt and tried to wipe my eyes. There was no one there.
I got up slowly, brushed myself off. I knelt, digging carefully, all the way around the bottle. I placed a foot on either side of the hole and lifted it out. I rolled the bottle into a clear space and got down on my knees again, rubbing my hands over the glass, spitting, removing the dirt. I bent closer, still couldn’t see. I stood. Straining, I lifted the bottle over my head, the moon lighting it up.
BY THE TIME I neared the end of Divina Trace the breeze had come up. Several dark clouds eclipsed the sun. The eight or ten houses of Suparee Village were deserted, not even a fowl or a potcake in the street. At the end of the trace the Church of Magdalena Divina was small, grey against a grey sky. The thick wooden doors were wide open. It was empty, cold inside. I walked slowly up the centre aisle, my jesusboots squeaking on the polished stone, slapping against the soles of my feet, each step echoing through the church. There was a gold baptismal font off to one side of the altar. On the other side there was a small chapel, devotion candles flickering in their red glass holders, the smells of Creole incense and sweetoil growing stronger as I approached.
I stood in front of the chapel, but I could see nothing in the darkness within except the bright red flames. I put the bottle down on one of the pews and climbed the steps, a line of calabash shells filled with sweetoil on either side. I knelt at the chapel railing. She began to take shape slowly out of the darkness, reflections of the tiny red flames rising on her face, flashing through the clouds of rising incense: her gentle eyes, comforting lips, the crimson mark on her forehead, her burnt-sienna skin, long wig of black hair. Her faded gown was covered with jewelled pendants, her outstretched arms thick with silver spiked churries and bangles, a solid gold rosary hanging from her neck – offerings for prayers answered – Magdalena Divina, Mother of Miracles, Black Virgin of Maraval! I closed my eyes: Hail Mary full of grace the lord is with thee blessèd art thou amongst women blessèd is the fruit of you womb Jesus. Holy Mary mother of God pray fa we sinners now at the hour of we death amen. I dipped my finger into the basin of holywater, crossed myself. I picked up the bottle again, walked quickly across the altar, left through the sanctuary.
Behind the church there was an immense samaan tree, spread symmetrically over a plot of green grass. Beyond it Maraval Swamp was greenish-black, mangrove growing along the edge and in the shallows, their thick moss-covered banyans arching out of the water like charmed snakes. I walked along the line of mangrove – picking my way through the tall reeds, the mud sucking at my jesusboots – until I found a gap where I could walk out into the water. I put the bottle down and it sank an inch into the mud. I flipped open the wire clamps at the top and lifted off the lid. I’d expected some pungent odour: there was none, only the stagnant smell of the morass. I tried my best not to look into the bottle, but I couldn’t avoid seeing two bulging eyes at the top of a flat head: the lid slipped from my hands landing clap in the mud.
I took a deep breath and picked up the bottle again, slippery now with the mud on the glass and on my hands. I walked slowly, the cold liquid in the bottle spilling down my chest, and at the same moment I put my foot in the water several things happened almost simultaneously: the frogs which were making a big noise ceased their croaking, and there was absolute silence; the light became immediately dimmer; and a gust blew, stripping blueblack tonguelike leaves from the mangrove limbs, their banyans quivering in the wind. I continued carefully into the water until it reached my waist, the bottle half-submerged, and stopped – shin-deep in the mud. Slowly, I tilted the bottle, feeling its weight slip away and the solid splash before me in the water. I wanted nothing more now than to turn quickly and run: I couldn’t budge my feet. Standing there, holding the finally empty bottle, seeing myself again with my baggy navyblue school shortpants billowing around my hips, feeling my feet again in my jesusboots beneath the mud, looking down again through the dark water again, thinking, not understanding, believing: He is alive. Swimming. I watched his long angular legs fold, snap taut, and propel him smoothly through the water; snap, glide; snap, glide; and the frogchild disappeared into a clump of quiet mangrove banyans.
Papee Vince Speaks Of Barto’s Relationship With Magdalena
THE BOTTLE was big and obzockee. I was having a hard time toting it, but I did not want to put the bottle down because I did not want to have to look at his face. I never saw it. From the time I left Domingo Cemetery, until I arrived at Maraval Swamp ten miles away, I’d put the bottle down only twice: on the shelf next to the oldman’s feet to climb up into the oxcart, on the pew to kneel before the Black Virgin. I’d seen only his eyes for an instant at the top of his flat head. For a single instant, as I removed the lid and he looked at me over the lip of the bottle, I at him, but to speak of that is to speak of nothing more than the figment of a child’s imagination. And when I say that I see the same eyes now, seventy-seven years later, as I sit here in this library, at this desk of purpleheart in this Windsor chair – this absurd miniature Warrahoon-Windsor chair, carved from the same trunk of wood according to the diagram Barto had found in the Oxford Dictionary, but the little Warrahoon had sized the chair to fit himself and not my grandfather, with its legs too short, its arms pressing uncomfortably into my sides, its saddle-seat shaped as though it were intended for the buttocks of a large boy – when I tell you that as I sit here I can still see the frogchild’s eyes, staring up at me, I at him, I speak of nothing more than the phantom of an oldman’s dotish fancy. I never saw his face. For all I know he had the face of every other child.
That is what I wanted to believe. I had tried for two years. For two years after Granny Myna’s death I had tried to forget Magdalena and the frogchild, to dissolve from my memory that distant Corpus Christi morning as though I were dismissing a bad dream. But it was a nightmare which would not leave me alone, despite my efforts to distract myself, and I did whatever I could. I broke biche on the school days of our excursions to Divina Church. I did homework instead of playing mas on Corpus Christi Day. To avoid sitting idle in church, I took the other acolytes’ turns, and I did it so many times they started calling me El Papa.
Those were days of football and cricket, of unending hours of schoolwork which began after six o’clock Mass each morning, continuing until they rang the bell for me to run myself to exhaustion on the football field again. The muddier I got, the more exhausted, the happier I felt. And when I left the football field or the cricket oval half an hour after the sun went down, I made sure I had only enough energy left to pedal my bicycle home, to eat dinner and sit through the two hours of homework before my father climbed the stairs to check our sums, and tell my brother and me we could go to bed. Even before my mother came in a minute later to kiss us and out the light, I was usually already asleep. Only the nightmares interrupted the routine.
Each time I awoke in the middle of the night, breathless, sweating – looking quickly to see that my younger brother was still in his bed beside mine, that the oscillating fan was still blowing – I would throw off the sheet to feel the fan sweep my naked body, hear its fanbreath move slowly across my wet skin, slowly back again, and I would tell myself that the face which haunted me in my dreams was not the face of the frogchild, because I had never seen it. That is what I told myself again: it was Wednesday, April 22, five days after my fifteenth birthday. I had dreamt I was back on the trace toting the bottle, and my arms had grown so tired in my dream I’d had to put the bottle down. Again I told myself that the face which frightened me out of my sleep was not the face of the frogchild. And I began to think that if no man could look at the face of God, as Granny Myna had told me, then maybe the same was true of the devil? If to look on God face is enough to kill you, then surely to look on the devil own ga do you worse. That face in you dream could never he the frogbaby own. Aren’t you still live? Aren’t you still breathing?
Because the time Jesus came to visit Granny Myna in her bedroom in the house on Rust Street, she had not seen his face either. She’d been lucky enough to see his toes first. Granny Myna was sitting up in her bed rolling her beads, and when she felt the breath of cool air touched by the faint smell of roses, and opened her eyes, there were his feet at the end of the bed with the toes that were long and white and creamy like icecream. He had spoken to her in Spanish, and he had held her, but she had not seen his face because his toes were so beautiful she could not look up from them wherever he went in the room. That is the way Papa God does do He business, she had told me, and I wondered if maybe the devil did his business the same way.
I woke up my brother to question him about it.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘Remember the time Granny Myna saw Jesus toes in the Rust Street house?’
He chupsed. ‘Carry you ass!’ he said, and he rolled over and went back to sleep.
I lay there trying to decide if I should go see if Papee Vince were still awake. Sometimes he’d be up reading, and I’d go sit next to him on his bed. Papee Vince would tell me stories about the old Domingo Estate, or about the short potbellied Warrahoons who made bows which were longer than they were, and who shot arrows clean through the three-inch-thick planking of his bungalows, high at the top of oil derricks in the Orinoco Delta. He told me stories about shrunken heads which the Warrahoons fed every day, and spoke to as though they were family, and put cigars in their mouths every evening to smoke. Sometimes Papee Vince asked me about football matches, and sometimes I asked him about the Warrahoons. He’d taught form three science for several years, and sometimes I asked him questions to prepare for exams. But I never asked Papee Vince about Magdalena and the frogchild. I never asked anyone.
I jumped out of bed, pulled on a shorts, and tiptoed down the hall to his room. Papee Vince wasn’t in his bed, so I climbed through the trapdoor in the ceiling to see if he was up on the porch above his bedroom. How my old grandfather made it up that ladder without pelting down I’ll never know. He spent all his evenings up there, reading or looking at the sea, until we called him down to dinner. After dinner Papee Vince would read until he felt tired enough to sleep, or he’d climb up on to the porch again to sit and look at the lights, at the moon shining on the water. Sometimes my grandfather would sit up there the whole night, and my mother would send Evelina with a coffee for him in the morning. The porch was six or eight feet square, set partially into the roof, a short railing around it. They were built at the top of practically every roof in St Maggy – cobos’ roosts we called them – because in the old days the wives climbed up there, and they must have looked like buzzards waiting for their husbands’ ships to return from sea. For years only the mailboat and a few local fishing smacks have ventured into our harbour.
It was a full moon night and Papee Vince was sitting in his hammock, wearing his baggy boxer drawers and a merino-vestshirt. He’d strung the hammock diagonally across the porch, and he’d padded it with newspapers which had turned yellow and musty-smelling. My grandfather suffered from the gout, and he was too heavy to lie comfortably in his hammock. Papee Vince sat with a leg on either side, his big belly in his lap, both soft swollen feet on the floor to steady him. I ducked under one end of the hammock and sat on the railing; there was scarcely enough room on the roost for both of us. My grandfather had an absorbed look on his face. Neither of us spoke for a while. I looked at the lights of St Maggy shining below, at the moon on the dark water, and when the breeze blew I smelled the foul odour of Maraval Swamp in the distance. Papee Vince unfixed the wire curves of his glasses from around his ears. He folded them carefully and put them down on the railing. The wire had oxidized into a brilliant bluegreen, leaving permanent stains on the bridge of his nose, in partial circles around his eyes, and behind his ears. My grandfather breathed heavily. When he began to speak his voice was slow, dignified. And each time he excused himself and paused. I would listen anxiously to the waves beating against the rocks, to the loud insects, the chickens scratching at the hard ground beneath the tamarind tree in our back yard, as Papee Vince managed the ordeal of sitting up to spit in an old Carnation sweetmilk tin.
YOU SEE SON, yardfowl has no business fighting cockfight, and by that, is meant to say this: I am no bloody physician now to loop the loop fa you. Neither am I any one of those fetusologist fellows, or who ever the hell kind of people they have to make a study of these things in particular, such that I ga have the knowledge sufficient to look you in the face and say, well yes, such and such, and so and so. I am a simple man. I have lived a simple life. But don’t let the one bamboozle you, son. Because let me tell you this: a little whiteepokee-penny-a-pound such as I was at thirteen years of age when I ran from England, and skipped ship at the first port which so happened to be this island, does not work he way up to the position of manager of a cultivation the size of the old Domingo Estate (fifteen-hundred-and-some-odd acres of cocoa, cane and coconuts, sixty-some half-naked half-wild East Indians and Creoles and Warrahoons, and they thousand-and-one children, with the nearest field-doctor twelve miles away in Wallafield) a little whiteepokee such as I was does not experience all that, without learning a little something of the art of Medical Science. Neither does a man work the oilfields of the Delta Orinoco there in Venezuela, fa thirty-five bloody years, hidden somewhere up in the bush behind God’s back, living among such species of savage as can be found in that place – and neither does a man watch a man lop off and desiccate another man’s head, pepper and eat another man’s flesh – and not learn a little something of the mysteries of life.
Right. One thing, from the start, from the very beginning. Because son, some of the things I ga tell you now, some of the things you are about to hear fa the first time, may seem, in one way or another, disrespectful to those defenceless old souls with whom they concern. I can only assure you of this: I would be the last man on this green earth to abuse the memory of you Granny Myna. She was the patroness of we family (my own wife, like Barto, having died at a relatively young age) and I would be the last to send her rolling in she grave. As fa Barto, he was my great old friend and employer fa twenty-two years. Other than Granny Myna, and this woman, I knew him better than anyone, dead or alive. I have nothing but the utmost respect fa you grandfather. And let me tell you something else son, while we here: I am no cokeeeye slymongoose, to sit in this hammock professing to decipher fact from fiction fa you. Yardfowl don’t pass collection plate when he preach to guineahen. Because son, these days story selling like tanyafritter. It filling you belly fast as windball. In the end, as with everything else on this good earth, you must decide fa youself.
Enough. The facts are these: seven-months-birth. Naturally, the child not sufficiently well formed. So much to be expected. But let me tell you something, son: this child is plenty more than forceripe. I myself have delivered seven-months-babies in Mayaguaro, and I had my own beautiful box of instruments made by the Johnson and Johnson people, given to me in the old estate days by you grandfather – and I was so happy with that box of instruments that the first day I got them I took out an abscess the size of a tomato from some poor woman’s breast that had been humbugging her fa donkey’s ages – but let me tell you something, son: not one of those children remotely resembled this child. Not a one. I have even delivered a five-months-baby once. That child had lain dead in he poor mummy’s belly fa three days. Even he was not the cacapoule this child is. Not by a chups.
To begin with, he skin green green like green. He head flat, with he two eyes bulging out at the top. They are, I should say, three to four times the size of normal, human eyes. He nose is nothing more than a couple of holes, say about the size of the holes you might jook out in a paper with a writing pencil. He ears are normal. He lips are thickish, as is he tongue, which protrudes, like it too big to fit up inside he mouth. He has no chin, no neck a-tall. He shoulders begin directly beneath he ears, and he chest looking somewhat deficient, particularly in comparison with he rather elongated trunk. Five to six inches of he umbilical cord remain attached to he belly, but nothing peculiar in that, particularly if Salizar responsible fa delivering the child. And we have every good reason to believe he is. Because do you think fa one second any bushdoctor like Brito Salizar ga tie the navelstring with a fishing-twine, and cut it short, and do the thing proper? Not fa cobo-jawbone he wouldn’t. He ga leave it hanging there just so, and when it drop off in its own good time he ga bury it beneath a breadfruit tree or a mango-julie to keep the jumbies away, or whatever else Warrahoon-Creole nonsense those bushdoctor-obeahmen like to do.
No son, there is nothing odd about an umbilical cord. But what does seem to me rather curious, very peculiar, is this: here is a child who comes out he mummy’s belly with both fists clenched tight round he navelstring. Now naturally, you ga want to ask youself: What in bloody hell is this forceripe little fucker trying to do? Because the child’s fists remained clenched just so, fa the entire three days he lived, and no one could pry them loose. Well now: I don’t know what you want to make of this navelstring business son, but I have considered it a good many years, and I think I have arrived at the explanation. Let we suppose now that this child did refuse to let go he umbilical cord, as they say he did, then it seems to me he is struggling instrinctively with the memory of he mummy: either he fighting to hold on to her, or to rip heself free.
But wait awhile. Wait awhile, son. We haven’t yet arrived at one of the most curious aspects of this child. As I understand it, and I have had it confirmed by several individuals who actually saw the child, particularly you own grandfather – because of course, I never saw this child, so I can only repeat fa you what I myself have been told – and as Barto assures me, in addition to the bulk of the remaining evidence which substantiates, in the very least, a birth of an enigmatic nature, that not only was this child born with the face of a crapo, he came into the world bearing the bloody tool and the stones of a full-grown man.
Of course, these days story telling quicker than you can beg water to boil pigtail, and the mother of this crapochild may, in fact, have been a saint, a whore, or both. I couldn’t tell you. What I can tell you is this: she was, without question, the most beautiful woman this island has ever seen, and she had every manjack basodee basodee over her. To be sure, it would take nothing short of a grand old cock of you own grandfather’s making to turn the table, but wait awhile. We coming to that one. Now: just where this woman came from, and who brought her here, if, indeed, she came from anywhere other than right there in Village Suparee, just there by Swamp Maraval (which would at least explain why she made all those pilgrimages out to that stinking morass, even why the statue always walked about by there, if you choose to believe it ever really walked about a-tall) wherever the ass this woman came from, and whoever brought her here, that, I couldn’t tell you neither. I would like to take a good lag on the ass of any son-of-a-bitch who could tell you he could. Because before precisely 6 a.m., on that Easter Sunday morning of the 19th of April, when she appeared from out the smoke kneeling at the top of St Maggy Cathedral steps, she white capra soaked down in red blood, no one had never heard of Magdalena Domingo. To this day, there is not much about her of which we can be sure.
Right. Good. Easter Sunday fête begins at dawn, following the three days of Easter Vigil, following Corpus Christi Day, as you know well enough, when all the little boys set off they firecrackers, and roman-rockets, and whatever not in front the cathedral to wake up everybody. Well: as fate is always inclined to favour slight coincidences, soft anachronisms, you grandfather happened to be there. You see, Barto was the self-appointed Captain of the Corpus Christi Navy in those days (because in those old days we actually had this navy, if you want to go so far as to call it that) we had this navy which you grandfather convinced everybody we needed fa some odd reason or the other, and which he himself fitted out with three pirogues, and half-a-dozen Warrahoons dressed up in white sailorboy costumes sent toute-baghai from England. The truth, however, is that Barto accomplished little more with this pappyshow navy than to prepare the first official map of Corpus Christi, and to lead an unofficial expedition to Venezuela fa which he is credited, in many of the history books, as having discovered the source of the River Orinoco. Barto’s only legitimate duty, as captain of this navy, was to fill the position of master of the St Maggy boyscouts (the seascouts, as they are called) which was only fitting as he had a home busting with badjohns heself. At all events, as I have said, Barto happened to be there on that Easter Sunday morning, both to watch over the boys, and to supervise in the setting off of all these firecracker-rockets.
Well they had only just gone off. The little wajanks were still running about the place, bawling and screaming and howling like a pack of cocomonkeys, when all of a sudden that old clock at the top of Government House cross the square begins to strike fa six o’clock. Son, every one of them went quiet in one. How, I couldn’t tell you. How that blasted old clock that is striking all day every day to beat back bloody dawn could distract anybody, much less a band of catacoo little boys, and a half-dozen sleepwalkers now rolling out they grave. But son, fish never bite before back scratch you, and cock never crow before Saturday morning, and wife never sing sweet before doodoo bawl fa sweetman. Is just so the thing happened. That old clock begins to strike, and it is as if the earth decides to hold up she breath. Just as the smoke from those firecrackers begins to rise from the cathedral steps, Magdalena appears, kneeling at the top, she hands folded, with all of we staring up at her in silence like she is some kind of jablesse, because she cheeks and she capra are covered with tears of blood.
Well: some say they knew from that moment she was a saint. But son, frizzlefowl love to dress sheself up like guineahen. In truth, were it not fa all these tears of blood, were it not fa she very sudden appearance (and I suppose she’d been kneeling there quiet the whole time, but with all that fireworks confusion no one had noticed her) were it not fa all these tears of blood, you wouldn’t twink you eyes twice at this timid little girl. Because the truth is that at first glance this Magdalena looks no different from all the little half-coolie, half-Creole, half-Warrahoon, half-so-and-so little callaloos running round in Suparee, and Grande Sangre, and Wallafield. Only after you examine her close, do you become aware of that subtle quality wherein rests she extraordinary, quiet beauty.
Because on the day she first appears, Magdalena is fifteen years of age. She is dressed in the same simple white capra of light muslin (the long strip of cloth wrapped clockwise round and round the body, passed between the legs and up over the left shoulder) just as all the East Indians wear, the Hindus and Muslims and so. She is quite small, with fine, delicate features, extremely large dark eyes, the scarlet tilak tatooed there on she forehead. She skin is a rich sienna-brown. She hair is straight, thick, and intensely black, and it must have reached down almost by she knees, because it was gathered all on the steps round her. And to my recollection they never cut off, even though she pledged and repledged she vows to the nuns – as if they had to give her a bushbath quick quick every time that blasted Chief of Police pounced on her – because son, you know those old goatface nuns good enough, and you know they don’t give the little girls a chance to promise chastity, and poverty, and whatever else not, before they shave them down like a clean-neck-fowl. No son, fa some odd reason they never cut it off, and she must have had some way of hiding all that hair beneath she nuncostume, but it seems to me you could hide a ramgoat beneath that amount of veils, and kerchiefs, and the pasteboard headdress and so. Because one year after she first appeared, on the day of she death – the day she gave birth to the child, and suffocated sheself soon as she saw the child’s face – on the day of she death she hair was every bit as long as it was on that Easter Sunday morning when she first appeared, she white capra soaked down in red blood.
Of course, the first thing we all thought was that she’d been mortally wounded. Fa months afterward many even said that she had, and some still do to this day. That Gomez, the Chief of Police, in the midst of all that fireworks confusion, had shot her. Because there was little Gomez, dressed in he military police uniform, halfway up the steps, he short legs straddled over three of them, pistol high in the air. There is little Gomez daring anyone to touch her, and he ga shoot them too. But the truth is that Gomez had thought the same thing. He’d looked at all the blood and assumed, naturally, that she’d been mortally wounded. He’d actually raised he gun in she protection. So there the three of them stood: Gomez, halfway up the steps, pistol high in the air; Magdalena, kneeling at the top facing the cathedral – or Barto, who is to say which? – she hands folded; with him standing there in the open cathedral doorway, dressed in he white naval uniform, the gold braids, the epaulettes, the Captain’s hat, standing there as always with he arms folded loosely in front of him, he eyes bright above he curled, waxed moustache. And it is as if these three figures, set against the cathedral in the background (if we can hold them there quiet a quick moment) it is as if these three figures standing there are a tableau telling the whole story, before the story has even begun. Because it is as if the two of them are already basodee in love with her, and she is already a sanctified saint, and there is little Gomez, already fighting over her as he would not only with Barto, and this same Mother Superior General Maurina, and the whole of Corpus Christi, with the oldman upstairs as well.
But he wasn’t fighting yet. He simply stood there, staring, he pistol in the air. We all stood here, looking up at her in silence, watching she capra growing redder and redder by the second. Until someone calls out to her. She turns to look at him, but she does not answer. Well: by now half of Corpus Christi has gathered there round the cathedral steps. By now there is plenty racket going on, murmuring and sighing and ohmeloassing and so. All of a sudden out busts Mother Superior Maurina from St Maggy Convent adjacent, running fullpelt with all she veils flying wild in the wind, and she pushes through the crowd, marching boldface right past this Chief of Police, straight up the steps to Magdalena. Mother Maurina grabs her up – so now it is two of them swimming in blood – and before any of we can even take in what has happened, Magdalena and Mother Maurina have disappeared behind the bolted doors of St Maggy Convent, leaving all of we to stare behind cokeeeye, and Gomez, the Chief of Police, with he pistol still in the air.
BEFORE I can even remember, from the age of six or seven, I had been marched off with the other children to the Church of Magdalena Divina. I know, because I can remember walking along watching the younger ones walking up ahead – themselves no older than six or seven – and wondering if their first memories of those yearly excursions would be like mine: sitting there crowded into the little church listening to Mother Maurina, thinking: But this crackpot oldwoman already tell you all this foolishness already. So why you don’t beg Sister Ann to go in the bush fa weewee, and then you could run by the swamp fa quick looksee if you find youself a fat guana?
Mother Maurina did not recognize me as her grandnephew, and I did not think of her as my own grandaunt. I knew only that she and Granny Myna had quarrelled long ago – some confusion, with Barto promising himself to both of them at the same time – but in the end my grandfather had married Granny Myna, and Mother Maurina ran away to the convent. She’d had nothing to do with any of us since. And I was happy not to have to acknowledge my relationship to the Mother Superior General, particularly before my friends, particularly on the days of those excursions.
They were days we all looked forward to, except for the part in the church. Classes were cancelled after lunch, when the nuns lined us up for the walk to Maraval; and we were given snowballs when the ordeal in the church was finished, and the nuns lined us up again for the long walk back to school. Because whether we liked to admit it or not, and whether we were in stage one or form six, there was always something a little frightening about the aspect of the Black Virgin in her dark chapel, no matter how peaceful she looked. And there was something even more frightening in Mother Maurina’s frantic exantaying about her.
We used to tell stories among ourselves, about how the Black Virgin was Mother Maurina’s own illegitimate child by an old coolie-yardman in the convent we called Toeteelo (named for his huge toetee, which we would hide behind the oleander hedge to get a look at each time he went to the big silkcotton to weewee); and how Mother Maurina had raised Magdalena in a convent closet, then made up all the Black Virgin business when she found her daughter pregnant for her own father (the same Toeteelo); and finally, how Mother Maurina had brought her story to life by building the mechanical walking statue. But we never imagined that the stories we concocted bore even the slightest resemblance to reality. Furthermore, we all knew that Magdalena Divina belonged to a time much older than Mother Maurina and Toeteelo. Even the crumbling walls of St Maggy Convent seemed too young to have contained her. She seemed as old as Corpus Christi itself.
Or perhaps we never believed in the mythical woman who preceded the statue at all. Perhaps – even without knowing it – we believed the flesh-and-blood Magdalena was only part of the legend fabricated and disseminated by Mother Maurina herself, by Monsignor O’Connor, by the others who wanted so badly to legitimize the cures, the unexplained events, all the miracles. Perhaps we believed it was their attempt to claim the statue as our own: to establish Magdalena as the patron saint of Corpus Christi. Their way of preventing the higher orders from coming and tying down and crating up our miraculous walking madonna, from carrying her away in the Vatican’s own ship.
Because we were told about little more than the miracles; we never heard much about the flesh-and-blood Magdalena. We heard only that she’d been a sister in St Maggy Convent for a short time, that she’d been devout, that she had died – we assumed, from natural causes – at a very young age, and that she’d been promptly forgotten until her statue surfaced to take up her story again many years later. Nothing more.
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